Immigrants' Children Ace Sciences

Article excerpt

Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Niels Bohr: The legacy of foreign-born scientists and mathematicians in America is well known.

They helped create the computer and the atom bomb, and have contributed a good portion of America's Nobel Prizes. Today, more than half of all engineers with PhDs working here were born abroad, as were 45 percent of computer scientists and physicists with doctorates.

But according to a recent study, there's another, less documented benefit that many immigrants bring to math and science in this country: their children. While doing some research on the Intel Science Talent Search (the "Junior Nobel Prize"), Stuart Anderson noticed a high number of finalists who seemed to have recent immigrant roots.

When the director of the National Foundation for American Policy delved deeper, the results were even more striking. Seven of the Top 10 award winners in this year's contest were immigrants or their children. Of the top 40 finalists, 60 percent were the children of immigrants. And a striking number had parents who had arrived on skilled employment, or H-1B, visas.

"The study indicates there are significant gains to immigration that haven't really been realized," says Mr. Anderson.

"There's been controversy over employment-based immigration, but if we had blocked these people from coming in, two-thirds of the top future of math and science wouldn't be here, because we wouldn't have allowed their parents in."

It's no surprise to most people who follow such high-level competitions, of course, that children of immigrants are well represented there, but even participants say they are surprised at just how significant the trend is.

"It seems like a lot of the parents who are immigrants, they've just had to work a lot harder to get where they are right now," says Divya Nettimi, a finalist in Intel whose research on the molecular compound myosin furthered the understanding of muscle contractions. "In India, such a huge focus is placed on education, because jobs are so scarce that it's a question of survival."

Her parents, both software engineers, came to the US from India when Divya was 9 months old, in large part because they wanted more opportunities for their children.

Anderson says immigrant parents view the science and math fields as good for their children because they're objective. "You don't have to worry about the subjectivity that can creep into fields like politics, or law, that are based on family connections or what you look like," he says.

There's also the fact that many of the parents themselves are working in those fields. …